Sunday, 15 January 2012

normality and the language game of reason giving

Here is a frequently encountered dialectical situation well known to the philosophically minded clinician. Someone is carrying on, in speech and behaviour - in a very odd way. You and I are wondering if we can make sense of what they are saying. 'Why did you not put your bins out?' 'Because the aliens are keeping me under surveillance.' That, I propose, just doesn't provide what counts as a good reason for acting. As Roger Teichmann has it, in his super little book Nature, Reason, & the Good Life, 'Roughly speaking, a reason for an action is meant to show why the action was, is, or would be a good idea; and the content of 'good' is provided by the context, by what is at stake, and, in an important class of cases, by what is normal and natural for human beings.' (p.12)

But you are in an anti-conservative mood and ask me 'Aren't you being rather restrictive in saying that often only what is normal and natural for human beings can count as fixing what the goodness of a reason for acting is?' 'Isn't that rather discriminatory of you?' 'What if doing something else had been normal?' 'Don't we need to be able to critique what is normal and natural as well - to hold it up to some standard?' 'Doesn't an unwillingness to do this show that our judgements as to what is and what is not humanly intelligible, sane, are grounded in nothing more than fiat?'

Now, I have come to think that there are different ways in which we can make sense of actions, and providing reasons for them is only one such (albeit the most important). There is also making sense as we might say psychologically, of why people do the strange things they do. That, it seems to me, amounts not to articulating the reasonable grounds but, on the whole, to looking at the inner motivational push for believing this or that - in terms of what is made thereby more manageable, more bearable, less galling, in one's experience and in one's self-conception. But when it comes to the rational sense-making of (which as Roger Teichmann notes, is not itself to be conflated with the giving, ad infinitum, of justifications for) actions, I suspect that less good sense can be made of madness than we sometimes hope. In what follows I'm going to borrow from my ancient PhD thesis to explicate what I see as the form of the conceptual temptation which underlies the anti-conservative move above.

The move was, I think, one to which Isaac Newton succumbed in the Preface to the Scholium of his Principles of Natural Philosophy. A man is walking along a ship from stern to bow. He crosses the top of the boat west to east at 4 mph. But, Newton wonders, what is his 'real' speed? For the boat itself is travelling east to west across the sea at 6 mph. So is the man 'really' going at 2mph? But then, Newton considers, perhaps the earth is itself in motion relative to the 'fixed stars'. And so on. What has happened here is that the notion of 'real motion' has floated free of the contexts which give the very idea of motion (one thing changing position relative to another) its sense. To ask 'yes, but free of such local restrictive contexts what is his motion?' is not as yet to ask an intelligible question - since the contexts provide the meaningful conditions for the very notion of motion.

So too, I suggest, with the idea that 'the content of 'good' is provided by the context, by what is at stake, and, in an important class of cases, by what is normal and natural for human beings.' To abstract away what is normal and natural for human beings is often not to emancipate reason from excessively restrictive, conservatively patrolled, parochial boundaries - to the greater purpose of bringing the psychotic subject within the fold of the humanly intelligible. It is, instead, to traduce the language game of reason giving by abstracting from the preconditions for the intelligibility of the practice.

This, ultimately, is I think what we find when we consider those phenomenological alternative universes which the psychotic person is supposed to inhabit. Whilst we can shed light on what it means to be insane by referring to a profoundly altered background of embodied dispositions, we do not thereby also get to shed light on the meaning, in an alternatively structured world outlook, of what they say and do. For to suppose that we still here have to do with a 'world outlook' is to imagine that we can talk about motion in abstraction from a stipulated frame of reference.

It is important to get the analogy right. The point is not that, just as we can talk about different motions relative to different frames of reference, different sets of reactive dispositions make for different frames of reference of intelligibility. That really is precisely not the point at all. The analogy is rather between a particular ('normal, natural') set of reactive dispositions (which provide a frame of reference for different utterances and actions) and a particular (namely a non-abstract, physical, fairly rigid and internally static) kind of object (providing a frame of reference for talking of an object's movement). (To go on '2+2=5' is not to add differently but not to do what is called 'adding'.)